lost in translation

14 September 2015

Dora comes into my room and gives me a plate. It is handmade, by the looks of it. A ceramic disk covered in a hand painted floral design, small roses rimming the edges. She puts it into my hands then puts her hand over her heart then onto my own. Then she reaches for my head, pulls me in and lays a big smooch on both of my cheeks and a final one my forehead. Promptly, she turns around and gently closes the door behind her.

I’m left in the wake of my own shaky emotions.

Just thirty minutes ago, we were sitting on the couch, playing a slow game of charades with each other as we tried to tell each other our stories. Luckily, country names are all, more or less, the same in most languages so Romania, Poland and Greece were easily understood. Same with Mama and Papa. Numbers too. And then we had our hands, our arms, our facial expressions. I was able to tell her that my parents have been married for 27 years, my father is Jewish (my mother is not, I had to reaffirm at her raised eyebrows), where they both were from, how many siblings I have, what I love to do and what I hope to do. She told me about her parents, her siblings, her children, what she did, how old she was when she left Romania, how old she is now.

And then there were the things that we could not tell each other, no matter how much we tried to gesticulate and sign and enunciate. Some things that cannot help but get lost in translation.

And now, I am slightly tipsy. I’ve just arrived home from a small celebration of my birthday with new friends. It is half past midnight and I’ve re-read what I’ve written here. And I think:

Even when we speak the same language, things can still get lost in translation.

And by that, I suppose I mean:

We come in to each conversation with our own presumptions, assumptions, ideas of how things are, and from there we filter what people say and do – sometimes – to become what we want to hear and see instead of what they are actually saying or doing.

It is strange, indeed, that I came into this situation – living with a person who I cannot communicate with on a verbal plane – thinking that I have never done this before, but I was wrong. I have done this before, just on a more subconscious level. Here, it is obviously obvious when Dora and I cannot understand one another – we sigh and cross our arms and roll our eyes as we search for a way to assist the others’ comprehension. When we speak, it is out of necessity, so it is also out of a kind of urgency that we need to get the other to understand just what it is we are trying to say.

In these other circumstances I speak of, though, we can find often ourselves prattling on at times without any sort of intention. We speak simply to hear our own voices or to test premature theories or to just shoot the breeze. And so we learn to listen in this way, too. We listen half-heartedly, inserting our own voices to fill the void left by our wandering minds and spaced-out thoughts.

And now without a crawling game of charades, wild gestures or slowly enunciated words, we still find ourselves lost in translation – we find odd disparities between what was said and what was heard. With my newfound experience in the explicitly frustrating scenario, I ask myself why I let this happen when it does not need to, when I can listen or speak with full intention and wholeheartedly to ensure that nobody’s story gets lost or incorrectly interpreted.

This might sound radical, but what if each conversation we had was treated as urgently as Dora’s and mine are – the need to convey meaning and the need to understand both held to sanctimonious standards, each participant tireless in their desire to both speak and listen wholly, correctly, completely?

Truthfully, I just pictured a street full of suited up gentlemen-and-women, each leaning earnestly and intensely into each other, anxious both to hear and be heard, scrupulously taking notes and playing back recordings to ensure they’ve got it all right.

And this is not what I mean to convey at all (perhaps, I’m not listening to myself correctly?), anyone who knows me well knows that seriousness is not my defining feature by any means.

What I hope to inspire and to put into practice myself is the sacred art of intentional speech. Put very simply:

Say what you mean.

And on the flip side:

Listen to what others are trying to say.

This way, we’ll have a beautiful circle of truth, authenticity and honesty flowing through our lives – at least, if we’re all speaking the same language.

If not – let the wild brouhaha commence!


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